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Reading to 'think green' – a blog to support the Green Reads group in Headingley, Leeds


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Next Green Reads meeting! We will be reading Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham on November 17th!

Hi all, now that the blog has been revived by the Ilkley Literature Festival reading group, I have decided to try using it to promote the REAL, LIVE, IN PERSON and STILL GOING Green Reads Leeds group, which meets in Headingley every month. I will be letting you all know what we will be reading next and, hopefully, providing summaries of our discussions. I am also trying to train myself to become more blog-literate and so develop the capability to create more exciting posts. Let’s see how that works!

In our last session we read Ruth L. Ozeki’s My Year of Meat – it is a brilliant book! I can’t recommend it enough. I will be posting a blog about our discussion at the weekend!

Next meeting

We next meet on November 17th – at Arcadia in Headingley from 7-9pm, to talk about Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands. I am so glad one of our regular members suggested this book – it is a really timely read given the threat badgers have been under (and still are) – and so far, I am finding it a great read: it aims to investigate the complicated relationship between badgers and humans in the UK and to put this in historical context – so far I have experienced linguistic, historical and literary revelations! I really do recommend it!

Why not join in here?

If you are reading this, fancy reading the book, but cannot come to the group – then why not let us know what you think about it here. You could share your favourite snippets, your thoughts about the approach Barkham takes, your own experience with badgers or ideas about other books we could read (for example). Reading Badgerlands really makes me want to return to Wind in the Willows – maybe I will, as a Christmas treat.

Future meetings

In December we will be reading a Green Reads classic – the seminal Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I will post the date for this meeting when it has been agreed. And I am hoping that in January we can look at Silent Spring Revisited by Conor Mark Jameson – but I have to debate it with the group. I will keep you posted!

Next posts

Right – well, it is back to the badgers for me. I will post a follow-up blog about Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy soon, with some thought-provoking links about what it means to be human. And then, I will rave about My Year of Meat in the hope that some of you will be seduced and go read it!


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Ilkley LitFest MaddAddam Trilogy reading group 4: What does it mean to be human

In 2004, Margaret Atwood gave a lecture at Carleton University entitled “Scientific Romancing: The Kesterton Lecture” – in it she poses the question, “What is a human being?”, later asking “How far can we go in the alteration department and still have a human being?” In our last reading group about the MaddAddam trilogy we took these questions as our starting point to think about all the not-quite-but-nearly humans in the novels and all the activities, characteristics and traits we thought Atwood might be suggest are ‘human’ or should be kept as central to the project of being humane humans.

In other words, we didn’t just want to ask ‘what is a human’, or ‘what does it mean to be human’, we wanted to ask ‘what could it mean to be human’, ‘what might it mean to be human in the future’, and ‘what should it mean to be human’. And, as well, we wanted to consider what Atwood is suggesting about how we are becoming potentially dehumanised by the very technology which has been sold to us as progressive.

The Crakers

We began by talking about the Crakers – Crake’s brainchild. Are they ‘perfect’ humans? Better-than-human humanoids? Or animals with some ‘human’ traits? Or do they encourage us to break down the human/animal binary? Some of the group found the Crakers frustrating – they are naïve, and in some ways (when it comes to dealing with the vicious painballers, for example) haven’t picked upon the rules of how things work, in a world in which humans are still battling, eating animals, using their own survival skills. But this seems to be the key – Crake has designed them to be perfectly adapted to a post-human environment (the glaring sun doesn’t bother them; their smell makes them unattractive to predators AND they can use their urine to protect themselves from attack; they eat kudzu and their own excrement; they approach sexual intercourse in an almost mechanical way). However, when humans are around, they are in potential danger: they can be manipulated and attacked (their defences don’t work on humans, but more significantly they don’t understand the concepts of threat, aggressiveness, greed, violence for its own sake). Does this highlight their non-human status? And do they have emotions? We debated this – on the one hand, they seem quite mechanical: they only have sex to reproduce, they don’t understand abstract concepts, they don’t seem to love or hate – they just do what they are programmed to do to survive. Expect, is this really the case?

As one of the group pointed out, Crake is unable to programme out singing and dreaming and they do seem to develop attachments. They care for Jimmy and then for Toby, Amanda, Zeb…and they do start to adapt their behaviour in response to reactions and explanations from the ‘humans’. For example, the Craker men are aroused to have sex if they sense a woman is ‘blue’ (in heat, I suppose). To the Crakers, the ‘human’ women always seems to smell ‘blue’. This leads to a terrible misunderstanding at the beginning of MaddAddam when some of the Crakers have sex with Amanda against her will: however, they learn that this behaviour makes the ‘human’ women unhappy so they control their urges on future occasions. This shows a respect and an understanding that to live together we need to respect each other’s bodies and happiness: is this one of the things it could mean to be ‘human’?

The Painballers

If it is, the painballers are no longer human – their whole approach is attack, rape, kill and they seem to take pleasure in other people’s unhappiness: so do the Crakers become more human than the painballers? And if it possible to become de-humanised or become more human, is the category ‘human’ a meaningful one anymore?

We discussed the problem of deciding that what makes humans, human is the ability to have emotions. Is it really the case that other animals don’t experience emotions? in Year, Atwood has Toby recall that elephants have been observed performing ritualised mourning ceremonies (like the pigoons seem to). And once we started to discuss it, many of us had examples of animals seeming to show emotions and manipulate situations (grieving cats and lying dogs featured in our discussion). I am using cautious language, because the danger is that we anthropomorphosise (our pets, especially). But is there not also a danger of underestimating animals and refusing to recognise any behaviour that does not fit into the binary human/animal thinking we depend on to understand ourselves – humans – as superior?

The Pigoons

The pigoons are technologically produced ‘ballooned-up pigs’ – large enough to contain human organs (so the human elite can own their own living version of any organs they would want to replace). They contain human DNA and, in the post-plague world, show an uncanny intelligence and ability to survive. In Oryx and Crake they pose a major threat to Jimmy, but in MaddAddam the surviving humans start to collaborate with them (with the help of the Crakers) to fight against the painballers. The configuration of humans working with painballers – with the vital help of Blackbeard the Craker boy – against the painballers, could be seen as Atwood’s way of imagining a new kind of relationship between humans and animals – or a way to challenge the human/animal binary once and for all.

Challenging the human/animal binary

We kept returning to this idea that the human/animal binary should be challenged: Atwood is showing not only that this type of thinking no longer worked in our world of scientific development, technological dehumanisation and genetic modification, but I think she is telling us it is problematic. The living world includes animals and plants – humans are one species. When humans see themselves as the most important species they set systems in place which destroy – is Atwood telling us we need to find another way?

I will finish here – I need to get this post out, and return to work. But I will be back with some links to consider these issues further. Meanwhile, I would love to know what you think.


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Ilkley LitFest MaddAddam Trilogy reading group 3: Commodification, Neoliberalism, Post-Feminism

In 1973 Atwood suggested: ‘Power is our environment. We live surrounded by it: it pervades every everything we are and do, invisible and soundless, like air…So many of the things we do in what we sadly think of as our personal lives are simply duplications of the external world or power games, power struggles (“Notes on Power PoliticsActa Victoriana 97.2: 7).

Although she wrote this as a supplement to her 1971 poetry collection, it still seems relevant to her work today. As we discussed in last night’s reading group: in her MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood envisions a world, in which: scientific development, corporate power and consumerism are inextricably linked; the internet sites teenage boys watch in the ‘privacy’ of their bedrooms make money from screening (and manipulating) global atrocities and exploitative child sex trafficking; CorpSeCorps, originally a security company protecting the most power multinational corporations is now working as the corrupt and all-pervasive police force of the world; the secret of the Secret Burgers sold in the pleeblands could be that you are eating somebody you know; and, the pills you are being advised to buy and take by your doctor could be the very things which are making you ill.

These links between consumerism and commodification, scientific development and exploitation, policing and marketing are at the core of Atwood’s dystopic imagining of a future world, which really does seem to resemble our own.

Oryx

We began by thinking about Oryx, her origins and her relationship with Jimmy and Crake. They first see her on HottTotts, ‘a global sex-trotting site….it claimed to show real sex tourists, filmed while doing things they’d be put in hail for back in their home countries. Their faces weren’t visible, their names weren’t used, but the possibilities for blackmail, Snowman realizes now, must have been extensive. The locations were supposed to be countries where life was cheap and kids were plentiful, and where you could buy anything you wanted’ (Oryx and Crake: 102-3). While none of the little girls on the site had ever seemed real, ‘Oryx was three-dimensional from the start’ for Jimmy – he is disturbed by the sensation that she is looking right at him: ‘Then she looked over her shoulder and right into the eyes of the viewer – right into Jimmy’s eyes, into the secret person inside him. I see you, that look said. I see you watching. I know you. I know what you want.’  We discussed what Jimmy projects onto Oryx here – he constructs a narrative to suggest they have a connection: is this to try and deal with his guilty feelings of attraction towards her; is it because he is disturbed by the way she has punctured his denial that the others are real – and to deal with this he has to decide she is special and can see him too?

We all agreed that Oryx remains a mystery – but this is as much to do with the fact that what we get of her is always from Jimmy’s perspective (even when she is dead, he is creating a mythology around her with and for the Crakers). She is also always an object of exchange between Jimmy and Crake – Crake prints out and keeps a picture of her, and later hires her as a live-in prostitute which he shares with Jimmy. Jimmy takes a while to realise this – it is at this stage he asks Oryx to tell her story, but (to the frustration of much of the reading group!) he shows an ability to listen to and understand her perspective without letting his own needy reactions get in the way: he wants her to be a tragic victim which he can come in and save – as it was pointed out in the group, his need to be the hero of her story, shows his inability to understand his own exploitative role within it. He first sees her when he is consuming the pornographic role she is playing – he is part of the sex industry and he remains so in her relationship with her. We debated whether he had any ethics or self-awareness – does he want to be the hero of her story, and her protector because he feels guilty on some level about the way he discovered her (watching child porn?), or is Atwood giving us Jimmy as an example of the international sex industry which thrives because of the Jimmies who watch while never understanding their own culpability? I also suggested, however, that however problematic Jimmy’s behaviour is, there is some sense he wants to be compassionate (perhaps, some little sense?) in comparison to the cold and calculated behaviour of Crake who buys Oryx and uses her to manipulate Jimmy right to the end.

We also discussed the importance of Oryx’s origins – Atwood is making a point about the international sex-trade and the continual exploitation of the poorer ‘disposable’ people in the East (or global South) by the richer ‘West’ (or global North) – Said’s Orientalism is still at play.

Is Oryx passive? Are there stronger women?

It was suggested that Oryx is quite a passive character – she spends her life being bought and then performing to please her owners – to challenge this, we discussed what Atwood was saying about power structures in the novels. Oryx is bought as a child – on the one hand she has no choice but to please her captors, or run away to almost certain death. She not only pleases her captors, she becomes a successful performer making herself very valuable – in this way she gains power within the restricted arena she has been placed. This continues to be the case throughout – while she is still an object of exchange with Jimmy and Crake in the Compound, she has reached a position of relative respect (within the sex industry), and she is in a position of some power when it comes to the Crakers within with the Paradice dome: she is still being constructed by others after her death, but she is being constructed as a Mother Goddess: this is a very gendered role, but it is powerful one.

This discussion led us to think about the other women: Toby and Amanda are both strong, powerful and independent. Amanda travels – it is she that tells is most about the rest of America – and she is the one who carve out her own career as a successful artist. She is also the one woman who survived a relationship with Jimmy unscathed. She seemed like Oryx, but stronger – both learnt to perform the roles people wanted to get what they needed (but Amanda remained in a more privileged situation, because of her global positioning as a Westerner, perhaps). However, while Toby keeps her agency throughout Year and MaddAddam, Amanda is almost destroyed in MaddAddam – we questioned why Atwood chose Amanda, who had been so inspirational, creative and strong throughout Year to be the one to be almost destroyed by the horrific sexual violence from the Painballers and then the unfortunate misunderstanding from the Craker men.

We talked about so much more

I am running out time and have written too much and we talked about so much more. Such as:

  • the backstory of CorpSeCorps’ rise to almost complete power: they began as a private security firm, took over from the police and then became the ultimate, all-powerful and pervasive protectors of corporate interests: this reminded the group of the privatisation of elderly care, large parts of the criminal justice system, universities and education, healthcare and war  in the UK and America
  • the pharmaceutical industry in the trilogy – scientific development is inextricably linked to corporate interest: lives become disposable. For many in the group, this seemed so relevant to many of the international health crises of our times: the AIDS crisis got so much worse in African countries because treatment was withheld for profit reasons (and because some lives – white lives – are seen as more valuable that non-white lives). And we are seeing this happening again with the Ebola crisis.
  • the increasing and soon-to-be all-pervasive power of multinational corporations – we ended our discussion by talking about the neoliberal drive in the US and the UK to give more and more power to business and take it away from politicians.

And so the discussion ended at this important and scary point: we ended by thinking about the role of literature and art in challenging this neoliberal logic. Amanda provokes with her bioart – the Gardeners try to provide a different narrative within their songs and storytelling sermons – the Crakers do with their singing and collaboration. And Atwood does by raising all these issues as a warning, a provocation, an invitation for us to reach the self-awareness Jimmy seems unable to reach.

I would love to know what you think about any of these issues – it was a great discussion but we want to know what you think.


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Ilkley LitFest MaddAddam Trilogy Reading Group discussion 2: Environmental doom, parody and hope

Last night we had our 2nd reading group about Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – the focus was on environmental catastrophe and environmental activism. We had another wide-ranging discussion and I got so involved I kept forgetting to take notes! So what I am hoping to do here is to sum up some of the main issues we considered.

We began by reflecting upon our focus on a set of issues – were we tempted to focus on the issues because Atwood is more concerned about these than she is about developing characters? This discussion was influenced by Atwood’s own remarks about the fact that characters don’t have to be (and often it is not desirable for them to be) likeable. All the main characters in the MaddAddam trilogy have major flaws – Jimmy and Crake being the most obvious examples. While Jimmy is often self-centred and weak, Crake manifests a fatal self-importance and is a very cold character (as observed by the God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood). More than that, though, it was suggested that perhaps Atwood was so concerned with dealing with such a large and challenging range of issues, that she doesn’t always give us convincing, complex characters and relationships. Not everyone agreed with this, but we did have a think about Toby and Zeb’s developing love in MaddAddam – is their happiness convincing? Is Atwood trying too hard to give us some kind of happy ending? Or is Toby and Zeb’s relationship (and the demise of Zeb) a good way for Atwood to indicate the threat to this new world (the painballers and other humans seem to see themselves as at war with our group of God’s Gardeners, Crakers and pigoons – they are going to continue causing pain and conflict).

This led to a discussion about the painballers  – do they represent past human evil? Or – more than that: is their survival and continual threat there to remind us that this new world cannot escape the horrors and mistakes of the pre-Plague (and dystopic) world: the painballers are ‘criminals’ who, as a punishment, are doomed to play a particularly violent version of Paintball until they kill each others – this means they are produced psychopaths (their psychopathic tendencies coming directly from their punishment). There is a lot to think about here in terms of the Atwood’s potential critique of current methods of punishment and policing.

We kept returning to the question of whether these books can be categorised as environmentalist – are they aiming to put forward an environmentalist message. On the one hand, it was suggested that they definitely seem to function as a warning –   Atwood herself has said ‘if nothing changes and we keep doing what we’re doing, we are heading for the perfect storm’ (Waltzing Again, 2006:260). Oryx and Crake is full of accounts of past environmental disasters – and these are often skipped over in order to get to another point (in a pretty alarming way). For example, when discussing whether pigoons ever were turned into meat products (despite the obvious ethical problems with this – it would be cannibalistic), the narrator informs us:

As time went on and the coastal aquifiers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes, and meat became harder to come by, some people had their doubts [about the assertion that pigoons were never turned into food]. (O and C: 27)

However, we also talked about the fact that  – especially in The Year of the Flood – she parodies much environmentalist discourse, especially through Toby’s reactions to The God’s Gardeners. She finds them sanctimonious and inflexible – and they fit many of the stereotypes attached to environmental activists today: the women wear their hair long, they all wear dreary sackcloths, life is taken very seriously, only handmade toys are allowed and they celebrate their bodily waste (it is a natural smell!) and believe it would be an honour to become compost and so contribute to Life after life. While some of this is written tongue-in-cheek, though – we also consider how serious Atwood might be about some aspects of Adam One’s philosophy. For example, in one of his sermons he preaches:

‘Ours is a fall into greed: why do we think that everything on Earth belongs to us, while in reality we belong to Everything? We have betrayed the trust of the Animals, and defiled our sacred task of stewardship. God’s commandment to “replenish the Earth” did not mean we should fill it to overflowing with ourselves, thus wiping out everything else. How many other Species have we already annihilated….We thank Thee, oh God, for having made us in such a way as to remind us, not only of our less than Angelic being, but also of the knots of DNA and RNA that tie us to our many fellow Creatures’. (Flood: 53)

This key idea – that we are not only connected to animals, but that we are animals, and we should see ourselves as sharing the earth with fellows, rather than owning the Earth (and plundering it with no thought for others) is a dominant one among environmentalist movements and fits with the collaborations in MaddAddam between humans, Crakers and pigoons – it seems like a good way to think to me – what do you think?

It was in this way of thinking that I/we found hope in the novels – but our discussion at the end was dominated more by a feeling of despair. There are many sections in the novels which seemed to suggest nothing could be done to change the direction of environmental crisis – we discussed the Bearlift enterprise which Zeb works for in MaddAddam – this involves feeding polar and grizzly bears garbage (now that their food sources are running low). Of this, the narrator Zeb says ‘Bearlift was a scam…It lived off the good intentions of city types with disposable emotions who liked to think they were saving something – some rag from their primordial authentic ancestral past, a tiny shred of their collective soul dressed up in a cute bearsuit’. (59).

We were left thinking about how we could avoid being these naïve irresponsible city types, and I posed the question: can literature help contribute to a more socially responsible world?

This feels like a good place to stop – please do join in the discussion picking up on any of these points or any others you are interested in.


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Ilkley LitFest MaddAddam trilogy reading group 1: Disorienting beginnings: parents and stories

So: we had our first Ilkley LitFest reading group about Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy yesterday before going to see Atwood herself – what a fantastic writer, reader, speaker, comedian! The discussion was pretty lively too, and I am afraid I got too involved to make comprehensive notes about the event, but I will do my best to sum up some of the key points made – do join in the discussion by adding a comment!

Being thrown in at the deep end

  • Snowman

First of all we compared the beginnings of the three books – many of the group felt disorientated when first reading Oryx and Crake. Our introduction to Snowman raises many more questions than it answers and we agreed we get a sense of unease and forboding from the start. The eastern horizon is lit with ‘a rosy deadly glow’, Snowman consults his watch, which no long works but just shows a ‘blank face….zero hour’; and while Snowman feels a ‘jolt of terror’ at this ‘absence of official time’, we are told ‘Nobody nowhere knows what time it is’ (3). A feeling of doom is upon us! This first section is imbued with Snowman/Jimmy’s despair  – by the end of this first section we find Snowman screaming at the ocean and in the process emphasizing the emptiness of the world he is now in.

  • Toby

In comparison, Toby seems to be coping quite well at the beginning of The Year of the Flood. While she is alone (we agreed – at the same time as Jimmy, but in the pleeblands), she has better coping mechanisms to draw upon and just seems to have a healthier attitude! For Jimmy, the birds ‘screech’, for Toby, they are a reminder that she is surrounded by life despite the lack of humans: ‘THe abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef – bleached and colourless, devoid of life. There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small voices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there’s no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier?’ (3). There is a thoughtfulness about Toby which fits well with her general resilience. This led to a discussion in the group about her childhood – which was a lot happier than Jimmy’s. It involved developing survival skills, which are topped up significantly by The God’s Gardener’s – but it also involved love. See my summary of our discussion about parenting below.

  • The Story of the Egg, and of Oryx and Crake, and how they made People and Animals; and of the Chaos; and of Snowman-the-Jimmy; and of the Smelly Bone and the coming of the Two Bad Men 

We all loved the beginning of MaddAddam which begins with Toby telling the story (entitled above) to the Crakers. We talked about the way Atwood’s interest in storytelling is really highlighted here – we have Toby crafting the story for the Crakers (who play their own part in their crafting through their constant interjections which we become aware of: Toby’s response to them become part of the story). The title of this story is a parody of the chapter titles of an 18th/19th century novel, and then we get another version of the story in the following pages. This led to an interesting discussion about the way stories in the trilogy are constantly celebrated (they are way for people to form and reform their identity) and undermined (we are always reminded there is another perspective). This adds to our own entertainment, but continues to disorientate us as readers – we are continually asking ‘what did happen’?….

Parenting

And so to return to the subject of parenting – Jimmy’s childhood is presented in a pretty miserable light. His parents are both distant – and his mother, when she is still at home seem depressed and neglectful. We do get this all from Jimmy’s perspective, however (think about Oryx’s response  to Jimmy when he is reflecting upon his abandonment by his mother – Oryx sees much to admire in Jimmy’s mother’s activism….and we are reminded then, that Jimmy’s perspective can be pretty self absorbed). Anyway, in the group we thought about all the different parents in the trilogy and it was difficult to think of any good parenting (beyond Toby’s). Consider:

– Jimmy and Crake

– Ren

– Zeb

We talked about whether Atwood was really interested in parenting, or whether she was using parenting to emphasise just how dystopic the world had become – is it that the world has become so full of violence, corporate self-interest, paranoia, and unnatural creations, that this is affecting everyone’s relationships at ‘home’? Is there any comfortable idea of ‘home’ any more (the Compounds – while being the ‘safe’ place for the elite are portrayed as paranoid glass cages; no one seems to be safe from CorpSeCorp and the numerous cults and gangs in the pleeblands). Is this Atwood’s real point?

The ‘invention’ of the Crakers

Finally, we talked about the Crakers. Are they the ideal parents? The whole community looks after the children (kind of like the God’s Gardeners) – and the Craker children seem happy. Is this a better way, or are the Crakers like programmed robots set to ‘parent’ in a practical way but with no real idea of love beyond nurturing? We discussed the fact they are the brain child of Crake – and so initially seem fixed into set patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking. But that actually, they begin to change – with Jimmy’s help they develop a mythology; their life rules begin to come under question through contact with Jimmy, Toby and the other ‘humans’ still alive; they learn to adapt their behaviour (e.g. no-means-no with regards to sex). And so they are much more flexible and adaptable than Crake planned (and they were created in collaboration with Oryx and the other MaddAddamites, anyway).

As a final thought, we considered the Crakers as a kind of text – a metaphor for Atwood’s novels. A writer can’t control what happens to her novels – they will always change, adapt to a particular context, become alive in a different way for different readers. And that seems like a good place to end and hand it over to you.

What do you think about the difference between the beginnings of the novels?

What are the main differences between Jimmy and Toby?

What do you think about the way parenting and childhood are represented in the trilogy?

And what do you think about the adaptation of the Crakers?

We would love to hear what you have to say.


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Ilkley Literature Festival reading group on Margaret Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy

Hi all! I am running a set of 4 reading groups on Margaret Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy at the Ilkley Literature festival – unfortunately tickets for these sessions have sold out, but if you want to follow our discussions I will try to keep you posted here, as best as I can. And if you want to join in the discussion, you can – here (by using the comments function). We will be meeting on from 6-7pm in October on Monday 6th, Wednesday 8th, Monday 13th and Wednesday 15th. See the Ilkley Literature Festival programme to read about this event and more! http://www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/ILF-Programme-2014-screen2.pdf

Here are the guidelines for the first session, which will also be posted on the Ilkley Literature Festival website:

In our first discussion we will think about what kind of novels Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy are, and consider what their function is (for example, do they just work as entertainment or are they asking us to think in a particular way, or even act upon what we read?

I will be hoping in this session that everyone will have read all three novels. But, for this first session you should also make sure you have re-read:

Oryx and Crake – chapters 1 and 2 (‘Mango’, ‘Flotsam’, ‘Voice’)

The Year of the Flood chapters 1-6 (up to p.29)

MadAddam chapters 1 and 2 (‘Egg’, ‘Rope’, ‘Procession’, ‘Poppy’) (up to p. 22)

We are going to start the discussion by thinking about what position we are put in as readers by Atwood at the beginning of each novel. When rereading think carefully about:

–       what world(s) is she introducing us to?

–       from whose perspective?

–       what is the effect of her continuous movement from past to present?

–       how she is using humour?

–       what other storytelling techniques is she using?

–       what effect does this all have on the way you, as a reader, respond to the novels?

To help consider these issues further it would be useful to think how Atwood has discussed how she would categorise the MadAddam trilogy. She calls these books, works of ‘speculative fiction’– telling us that while science fiction is about things that could not possibly happen, speculative fiction is about things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. But she also calls them ‘Ustopias’, explaining:

Ustopia is a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other. In addition to being, almost always, a mapped location, Ustopia is also a state of mind, as is every place in literature of whatever kind. As Mephistophilis tells us in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Hell is not only a physical space. “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it,” he says, “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d/In one self place; but where we are is hell,/And where hell is, there must we ever be.” Or, to cite a more positive version, from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “then wilt thou not be loth/To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess/A Paradise within thee, happier far.” In literature, every landscape is a state of mind, but every state of mind can also be portrayed by a landscape. And so it is with Ustopia. (‘The Road to Ustopia’, Guardian, 14 Oct 2011, 4)

So for Atwood, all dystopic novels contain an idea of utopia, and vice versa. This is an idea we can discuss as well as considering Atwood’s claim that there is nothing in the MadAddam trilogy that is not entirely without foundation (so there is or has been some version or possibility of everything in the novels in our world today).

It would be really great for the discussion if you could come with your own suggestions of extracts from the trilogy we could look at to consider the way they function as dystopias/utopias.

This discussion will lead onto the next three reading group which will focus on:

Session 2 Environmental catastrophe, environmental ‘solutions’, environmental activism (we will think about the different perspectives Atwood presents to get us to think about our own environmental future)

Session 3 Corporate power, commodification and anti-capitalist resistance (we will think about CorpSeCorps and it maintains its power, the way in which bodies – in particular, female bodies ­- animals and space is commodified in the world of the novels, and the resistance to this by activists such as the God’s Gardeners)

Session 4 What does it mean to be human? (for our final session, we will focus on all the beings in the novels that are nearly-human-but-not-quite – Crakers, pigoons, painballers….- and consider what Atwood is suggesting being human means – this will give us an opportunity to think about art, literature, music, diary writing, sexual desire and of course everything else that springs to mind!).

I hope this way of the dividing the sessions sounds good to you – we have 3 pretty weighty novels to discuss in 4 hours so I have done my best to think of a structure which will give each meeting a structure, while letting us move around a range of issues.


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A schedule for February and March

Hi all, I have been terrible at keeping this blog up to date: sorry! I will do better. Green Reads has been going well, though, with six keen members, and counting (hopefully!). Over the next week, I will write a couple of blogs about the kind of discussions we have been having. Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley garnered some really interesting discussions, involving nostalgia for childhood spaces; shock and outrage at the environmental damage waiting to wreak havoc in the sky above our heads, as well as on the land just out of view; and wonder and amazement at the resilience of the flora and fauna able to live in the wasted spaces which define the liminal spaces between town and country in the UK. We also enjoyed the book’s poetic language and its ability to change the way we look at and occupy our cities and beyond. We then moved onto look at Stories of Birds, a nineteenth century American collection of writing about birds for children: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20547/20547-h/20547-h.htm – we found this a delightful interlude, which inspired us to think about the birds within our local environments and the use of literature to get children interested enough in their environment to care. And this brings me up to date. Today we are having our first discussion about Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. It is a book I would strongly recommend: of interest to Green Reads is its focus on the plight of the Monarch butterfly, trying to survive in a time of severe weather fluctuations brought on by global warming. It is a very readable book, which contains humour as well as many ethical debates about the environmental, but also about social class, global poverty and gender politics.

Here is the schedule for the next month:

  •  February 4th: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver (up to p. 214)
  •  February 18th: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver (whole book)
  •  March 4th: Cradle to Cradle: Re-Making the Way we Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough
  •  March 18th: Cradle to Cradle: Re-Making the Way we Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough

New members are always welcome – both ones in person and ones contributing to this blog. I will do my best to update this blog more often! And I am hoping some more people might contribute! To make the blog look pretty I will include a picture of a knitted Monarch butterfly – it does relate to Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour!

http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/monarch-butterfly